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As Newtown Anniversary Approaches, 911 Call Recordings Released

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In what's leading to debates among journalists and community groups alike, attorneys for Newtown, Conn. released recordings of 911 calls from the Dec. 14, 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School today—nearly a year after gunman Adam Lanza shot his way into the school before killing 26 people and committing suicide.

The release was made to comply with a judge's order following an appeal by State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, who argued that there was no public interest served by releasing the recordings and that such an action would only exacerbate the pain of grieving families. The Associated Press sought the recordings under Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act to analyze the police response to the shootings.

Listening to the recordings, I was struck by the same thing that struck Associated Press reporters: the calm response of the 911 operators who worked the busy switchboards that day. Dispatchers stayed on the line with a custodian who called to report the sound of gun shots, directed teachers to lock their doors, and pinpointed the location of a teacher who'd been shot in the foot so that paramedics could quickly locate her classroom.

Only a handful of the stories I've read about the calls have included links to any audio of the recordings, but the decision to report on them at all has angered some people, including a Twitter user who told the AP that it is "really inappropriate and over the top" to cover the recordings. 

Few public records on the police response to the shootings had been released until Nov. 25, when Sedensky released a summary of his investigative file. The judge who ordered the tape's release said they could help inform policy debates.

"Release of the audio recordings will also allow the public to consider and weigh what improvements, if any, should be made to law enforcement's response to such incidents," Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott said. "Delaying the release of the audio recordings, particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials."

But it's also easy to understand why some have fought to keep the tapes private. Newtown, a relatively small school district, is now home to teen bereavement groups and mournful public meetings. It's a good and natural thing to want to protect vulnerable people, but that's not a good enough reason to hide a public record, the judge ruled.

Newtown families are experiencing painful and personal first-hand lessons in journalism ethics and open records laws. In a letter to parents this week, interim Superintendent John Reed urged parents to be careful about what media their kids consume in coming days, the Newtown Bee reported.

"Like you, I have not listened to the tapes, but I suspect for many persons the tapes will be an emotional trigger. I remain confident that by supporting one another with love and understanding, we will continue to move forward as a school system and community."

In the end, media outlets carry great responsibility when they choose how to report on the recordings and whether to air them on their broadcasts. Just because we can post something doesn't mean we should.

At the same time, the emotionally sensitive nature of a public record doesn't mean it shouldn't be carefully covered. Police response to situations like Newtown raises plenty of questions about subjects like whether we should change our law enforcement protocols, and how first responders can better work with school districts to prepare for emergency situations.

Here's some guidance from the Radio Television Digital News Association about how to handle 911 recordings. I would imagine it mirrors conversations happening in newsrooms around the country today.

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